THE UNWELCOME GUEST

The sun set glorious over the peaks of the Cherokee ridges, and their
crimson outline lay dark, like a haven for the silver boat of the
descending moon, when Durgan, satchel in hand, climbed the ascending
foot-trail.

The cart-road evidently reached the summit by further turnings; but this
footpath, wending through close azalea scrub and under trees, emerged
between one gable of the summit house and the higher rocks above it. On
the other three sides of the house its open lands were broad enough.

This had been the dwelling of the former miner. Durgan, already heralded
by the barking of watch-dogs, could hardly pause to look at a place
which would have been his perquisite had it not been bought at a fancy
price by woman’s caprice.

The low shingled dwelling, weathered and overgrown by vines, was faced
by a long, open porch. Its lawn was already bordered by a fringe of
crocus flowers. The house was old, but, beyond a group of trees, a new
barn and carriage-house were standing. The fences of garden, field, and
meadow were also new. The whole property bore marks of recent
improvements which betokened wealth and taste.

A prim little lady met Durgan in the porch. Her hair was gray; she wore
a dress of modified fashion. Even the warm glamour of the evening light
and the matchless grace of hanging vines could give but small suggestion
of romance to Miss Smith’s neat, angular figure and thin face; but of
her entire goodness Durgan, after the first glance, had never a doubt.
She put on spectacles to read the letter of introduction which he
brought from the owner of Deer Mountain and of the mine. She was
startled by something she read there, but only betrayed her excitement
by a slight trembling, hardly seen.

The letter read, she greeted Durgan in the neat manner of an established
etiquette which, like her accent, savored of a New England education.

“Take a chair, for I guess you’re tired. Yes, we bought this land from
General Durgan Blount, and, of course, we’ve had dealing with him.
That’s about the extent of our acquaintance.”

She swayed in a light rocking-chair, and for some minutes obviously
thought over the request which the letter contained that she should give
Durgan a temporary home as a paying guest. He employed the time in
looking at books and pictures, which were of no mean quality, but seemed
to have been recently collected.

At last she said, “Come to think of it, I don’t see why you shouldn’t
stop with us a while. My sister isn’t at home just now, but I guess I’ll
say ‘Yes.’ It isn’t good for folks to be too much alone. We’ve a real
comfortable room over the harness-room in the carriage-house. You’ll
have to sleep there, as we’ve no room in the house, and I guess what we
eat will be good enough.” A moment’s pause and she added, “My sister
won’t be quite agreeable, perhaps, not being accustomed—-”

“Of course, I quite understand, you’re not in the habit of doing such
a—-”

“I did not mean that we felt too grand.”

Miss Smith made this answer to his interruption with crisp decision, but
as she did not return to the interrupted subject, he was left
uncertain.

While she busied herself for his entertainment, Durgan, surprised into
great contentment, sat watching the darkness gather beyond the low
arches of the porch. The room was warmed, and at that hour lit, by logs
blazing in an open chimney. It was furnished with simple comfort and the
material for pleasant occupations. Glass doors stood open to the mild,
still night. The sweet, cool scent of the living forest wandered in to
meet the fragrance of the burning logs.

There was one uneasy element in Durgan’s sense of rest–he dreaded the
advent of the sister who might not be “quite agreeable.”

Out of the gloaming, stooping under the tendrils of the vine, a young
woman came quickly and stopped upon the threshold. She seemed a perfect
type of womanhood, lovely and vigorous. One arm was filled with branches
of dogwood bloom, the other hand held in short leash a mastiff. Her
figure, at once lithe and buxom, her rosy and sun-browned face, soft
lips, aquiline nose, and curly hair gave Durgan sincere astonishment,
altho he had formed no expectation. But his attention was quickly
focussed upon an indescribable depth of hope and fear in her eyes.
Before she spoke he had time to notice more consciously the clear brown
skin, crimson-tinted on the round of the cheek, the nose delicately
formed and curved, and the startled terror and pleading look in her sad
brown eyes.

The dog, probably at the suggestion of a nervous movement on the leash,
began to growl, and was silenced by a caress as Durgan introduced
himself and explained his errand.

“It is very late,” she said gravely. “It will surely be difficult for
you to find your way down the mountain again.”

“Miss Smith has very kindly acceded to my cousin’s request.” Durgan
spoke in the soft, haughty tone of reserve which was habitual to him.

The girl’s tone, quick and subdued, had in it the faint echo of a cry.
“Oh, I don’t think you would like to stay here. Oh, I don’t think
you—-”

Miss Smith came to the door to announce his supper.

“Mr. Durgan is going to stop a while with us, Bertha. It’s no use his
having a mile’s climb from the Cove to his work every day–at least not
that I know of. I’ve been fixing up the room over the carriage-house; I
tell him the barns are a sight better built than the house.”

It appeared to Durgan that she was reasoning with the younger sister as
a too indulgent mother reasons with a spoilt tyrant of the nursery. The
effort seemed successful.

Without further comment Bertha said, “We bought this old house along
with the ground, but we built the rest. We took great care that they
should be good models for the people here, who are rather in need of
high standards in barns and–other things.”

“In many other things,” said Durgan. “I have not been familiar with my
own State since the war, and the poverty and sloth I have seen in the
last few days sadly shocked me.”

Durgan had not of late been accustomed to kindness from women. It was
years since he had eaten and talked with such content as he did that
evening. If his material comforts were due to the essential motherliness
in Miss Smith’s nature, it was Bertha’s generous beauty and lively mind
that gave the added touch of delight. Miss Smith swayed in her
rocking-chair, her neat feet tapping the ground, and put in shrewd,
kindly remarks; Bertha discussed the prospects of the mine with
well-bred ease. Durgan assumed that, as is often the case in the
Northern States, the growing wealth of the family had bestowed on the
younger a more liberal education than had fallen to the lot of the
elder. At the hour for retiring he felt for them both equal respect and
equal gratitude.

The stairs to his chamber ran up outside the carriage-house. The room
was pleasant–a rainy-day workroom, containing a divan that had been
converted into a bed. Books, a shaded lamp, even flowers, were there. As
a sick man luxuriates in mere alleviation, as the fugitive basks in
temporary safety, so Durgan, who had resigned himself to the buffets of
fortune, felt unspeakably content with the present prospect of peace.

He read till late, and, putting out what was by then the only light upon
Deer Mountain, he lay long, watching the far blaze of other worlds
through the high casement. To his surprise he heard an almost noiseless
step come up the stairs; then a breathless listening. He had been given
no key, but one was now gently inserted in the lock and turned from
without.

Durgan smiled to himself, but the smile grew cynical.